Tag Archives: grief

The envelope

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I don’t know why I wanted – no, didn’t want, absolutely did not want, but needed – to see my mother’s body. It’s not as though her death was a surprise. Although it happened sooner than expected, I was not in denial, I didn’t need proof … and I had a gut-deep dread at the thought of looking at her, facing the oozing reality of death doing its work inside her. I couldn’t shake the fear that she might be swollen, or discolored, or just fundamentally dead-looking. Forgive me for saying this … I imagined she might smell.

I knew these fears were irrational and silly – we of the first world are shielded from the obnoxious aspects of death. It has become sad but pretty. We have a supermarket-sized range of choices as to how we hide the evidence of our mortality, from worm-defying embalming, to composting (my preferred option. Marmeee would have chosen it too, but we’d already cremated her by the time I learned it was possible – and I still don’t know whether it’s done in South Africa).

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Things Marmeee loved: Gardens and gardening and South African native plants. She and her brothers sponsored a bench in Kirstenbosch Garden, in Cape Town, in memory of my grandmother, who used to work there. We – my siblings and I – will put one at Walter Sisulu Nature Reserve, outside Johannesburg, for sitting on while remembering her and the Olde Buzzard. This picture is of the Hoya vine that her mother started from a cutting, and that Marmeee cherished for 50 years.

And yet, despite all logic, the thought of looking at my mother’s dead body filled me with cringing dismay. My resistance was just a little less powerful than the compulsion I felt to see it. I remembered all the stories I’d read or heard of near-death or out-of-body experiences, and imagined her disincorporated self hanging around, waiting for me to come and … what? I don’t know. Pay my final respects?

As I write this I can almost hear the derisive hoot of laughter with which she’d have greeted such an idea. “Your respects?” she’d have exclaimed. “You’ve never been respectful in your life. You call me fubsy!” Which is only partly true. I may have been quite good at concealing my respect for her, but she knew very well it was there. As for fubsy … well, she was, and so am I. It’s a Tookish trait!

Well, I digress. I’d have preferred to get The Viewing over and done with right away, but thanks to a missed flight and then a 12-hour delay in Heathrow I didn’t reach Johannesburg until Sunday evening, when the undertaker was closed.

The next day, Monday, I met my father and my sisters, the Egg and the Kat, at the Kat-House, to go through Marmeee’s clothes and choose something pretty for her to wear. The Kat chose a white blouse with embroidered giraffes that she had given her. We added a pair of cotton capris and some underwear. I vetoed shoes – who wears shoes when you’re lying down? – but insisted on socks to keep her toes warm. The Old Buzzard chose her most beautiful shawl – a big, soft, fringed square in her signature shades of grey, blue and lilac.

On Tuesday the Egg, the Kat and I took the clothes to the undertaker. We asked for a simple pine box and a cremation, definitely no embalming, no fuss. No, we didn’t wish to attend the cremation. But … I took a deep breath. “I would like to see her,” I said. They said they would have her ready for me the following day.

On Wednesday morning my bestie, Twiglet, picked me up. I made her promise to come in with me. “I’m scared,” I told her.

“Don’t be. It’ll be okay – you’ll see,” she replied gently.

“I’ve never seen a human dead body before,” I explained. “And this is my mother!”

“My Mom was my first too,” she said.

At the mortuary, the receptionist called a man in a black suit to lead us to the viewing room. His expression was somber, and it bothered me that he seemed sadder than I was. I was too anxious to be sad. I had absolutely no idea what I would do, how I would react. Would I sob hysterically? Fling myself on her coffin? Laugh – as I so hideously did when I was 12 years old and told my classmates my little dog had died, run over by a car, and they all thought I was an awful person because the only expression my face remembered for days after it happened was a ghastly rictal grin? Our escort opened the door to the viewing room, then stepped back to wait in the hallway, head bowed and hands quietly folded.

The room was bright and spacious, with curved rows of empty seats and large windows. Near the front, resting on a dais, was the coffin – pale, unvarnished pine, with rope handles. Although plain it was nicely made – sturdy, with rounded edges and a few simple carved details. Viewed from the doorway you couldn’t see the coffin shape, and it looked like something my mother might have chosen to keep on her back stoep – an attractive box for storing gardening tools that was also a good height for sitting upon with a cup of tea.

I walked about halfway down the aisle between the chairs, then sat down. “What am I supposed to do?” I asked Twiglet. “I don’t even know how I’m supposed to feel.” She just hugged me and waited for me to figure it out. “Okay,” I said at last. “Let’s do this.”

Things she loved - OB

Things Marmeee loved: Book stores. Coffee shops. The Olde Buzzard. Earrings, like the ones he gave her just before we took this picture.

I marched up to the coffin and looked down into it.

The woman inside was lying with her head tilted back, so that her chin jutted sharply toward the ceiling. She didn’t look entirely comfortable. I wanted to lift her head, tuck a pillow under it … but I didn’t have a pillow. Also, I was worried that if I lifted her head her whole body might rise, rigid as a plank. I don’t know how long rigor mortis lasts, and it didn’t seem appropriate to google it just then.

Her eyes were closed, and her lips were thin and stern. I wondered whether the mortician had used glue to fix them shut.

I touched her cheek. She was icy. I realized that she had been packed in bags of ice, and yanked my mind away from the reason this was necessary. I stroked her hand. It was cold… cold.

Her beautiful shawl had been tucked around her shoulders, but was a little bunched up. I patted it smooth, snugged it around her. I wondered whether I should kiss her, but I really didn’t want to.

I went back to where Twiglet was sitting and plunked down into a seat. “I don’t feel anything,” I said. “She’s not here. That over there -” I gestured toward the coffin. “It’s just an empty envelope.” Twiglet nodded, and hugged me again.

“So … okay. Let’s go,” I said. I stood to leave, but found myself wandering back to the coffin. I felt restless, vaguely ashamed that I didn’t want to cry or wail, angry that something so momentous could happen and leave me bereft of words or feelings.The shawl still didn’t look quite right. I rearranged it again, positioning it so that one of the embroidered giraffes on her blouse was visible.

“I’ll tell you one thing,” I said. “She’d be royally pissed at us for burning this shawl.”

Twiglet gave me the side-eye. “I’m sure they’d give it back if you asked them to.”

“No, I don’t want it – it’s not mine to take. But I hope someone steals it before they cremate her. She’d like that – knowing it was making another woman feel pretty.”

“Well,” Twiglet said. “Who knows? This is Africa. Maybe that’s one of the perks of the job.”

We were chuckling as we walked through the door, down the corridor, and out into the sunlit parking lot. Behind us, I knew, machinery had hummed to life and the dais, the coffin and its chilly, empty contents had sunk to the basement, out of sight. But the thought of it no longer scared me. I felt a sense of release. I was glad I had seen her body. It had served her well for many years, and so had earned our gratitude and respect, but she was no longer in it. She had written the letter of her life, signed it “With love”, and had quite clearly moved on.

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Things Marmeee loved: Me

A beautiful day

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A beautiful day

I called my mother from Los Angeles Airport while waiting to board my plane. It was around 7.00pm on the Pacific coast, about 4.00am in Johannesburg, and the WhatsApp message the Kat had sent while I was en route from Seattle to LA said she was awake, and alert for the first time in several days.

She was in the cancer ward at Johannesburg’s Donald Gordon Hospital. My sisters, the Kat and the Egg, were with her. She had been there for a couple weeks already, but a bureaucratic hairball had blocked me from returning to South Africa. At last that morning someone in the Department of Home Affairs coughed up permission for me to go, and I hurled clothes into a couple of suitcases and the Hubbit drove me across the state to Seattle. We arrived just in time for me to miss my plane to Heathrow, but I found another flight that went Sea-Tac – LAX – Heathrow – JNB and took only 12 additional hours to get there.

Marmee's Baskin Robbins boob solution

Laughter. An insatiable appetite for ice cream. A bawdy sense of humor. Delight in the little things. That’s my Marmeee.

The plan for the Marmeee that day was a procedure to draw fluid from from her overburdened lungs. The revised plan for me was to arrive at Johannesburg International Airport on Sunday morning, where the Girl Child would meet me and take me straight to the hospital. After that, my sisters and I would plan where she should go to recuperate – to Hospice or to somebody’s home – until she was ready to return to the retirement complex where she lived with my father.

Plans are so easy to make. You just say them out loud, or write them down, and … voila! Life goes right on happening.

My personal short-term plan was to chivvy her off that ridiculous hospital bed and whisk her away to eat ice cream. Oh, how she loved ice cream! No matter how satisfying the feast, there was always room for ice cream because “it trickles into the interstices between the intersections of your intestines.” Her mother used to say that, and now I guess it’s my turn.

Meanwhile, at LAX, I had a pocket of time, a seat in an uncrowded corner near the boarding gate, and a WhatsApp connection. I called on the Kat’s phone. “Hello!” the Kat said. “She’s awake. Hang on, and I’ll hold the phone up to her ear.”

There was a pause, then I heard a strange hissing noise, like a tap running, or loud interference. I thought the call had dropped, and was about to dial again when I heard the Kat’s voice at a distance. “Hey, Mom, it’s Belladonna on the phone. She’s in LA, and she wants to talk to you. You ready?” I understood then that the sound I could hear was the hissing of her oxygen mask.

“Hey Ma?” I said. I paused, waiting for a response, but heard nothing but the pulsating mechanical hiss. I remembered that they’d told me she couldn’t speak. It was still my turn. “Hey there!” I said. “I’m so glad you’re awake! I’m on my way, I’ll be there soon, but I wanted to say hi, and to tell you I love you. In case you’ve forgotten.” She made a sound – something between a gasp and a groan. My chatter slammed to a stop as I strained to understand. She made the sound again. She was speaking, saying “hello”, or maybe it was “I love you”. I didn’t have to hear it; I already knew. “Hush, little Marmeee,” I said, speaking more slowly and gently now. “Don’t tire yourself. We can talk properly when I’m there. I just want you to know I’m on my way – I’ll be boarding soon – and I want to tell you why it’s taken me so long to come. I really couldn’t help the delay.”

It was important to explain because I’d promised, back in February when she was sad that it was time for me to leave, that I’d return when she needed me. And although she hadn’t asked me to come, she’d asked the Girl Child why I wasn’t there. She knew that I knew she wanted me, and while she would not have doubted my love the delay must have puzzled her. But I hadn’t wanted to tell her about the closed door at Passport Control, because I didn’t want her to worry that it might not open in time.

There was no longer any reason to worry, so I launched into a chaotic account of Belladonna’s Battle with Bureaucracy – starting with me being declared “undesirable” when I left South Africa in February because I’d stayed 22 hours past the 90 day limit on my American passport, through to the breakthrough that very morning when my heart daughter Ngalitjeng realized she knew someone who knew an influential someone who worked for the director general of Home Affairs. Sitting in the LAX departure lounge I told it as a funny story, and she smiled and smiled, her eyes sparkling above the oxygen mask. (I know this because the Kat told me so later. She and the Egg had wanted to hear what I was saying too, so they could share her amusement, but when the Kat tried to take the phone to activate the speaker Marmeee shrugged her off, clutched the phone greedily to her ear, and wouldn’t let go.)

My tale rambled as I worked at amusing her while ignoring the relentless hiss of her oxygen. At intervals incomprehensible announcements erupted from the public address system; there was no getting away from them, so I would just stop talking and let her listen to the airport noises and know that I was indeed on my way. Then the boarding calls for my flight began, and segment by segment my plane began to fill up. It was becoming difficult to keep track of the conversation, but I wasn’t ready to stop.

I told her again that I loved her, and that I would be there in time for breakfast on Sunday. I sang her the little prayer she used to sing to me each night when she put me to bed. I told her that really she didn’t need to go to such extreme lengths to get me to visit. And then I said, “But just in case you’re not faking, just in case time really is short, I want you to know you don’t have to wait for me. I’d love to see you again, but if you need to go, it’s okay. I know where you’re going, and I’ll find you there one day.” For a moment I listened to her air hiss. I let her hear my boarding call, for rows 60 to 54. I said goodbye.

She released the phone to the Kat. She was still smiling. I know this, and all that followed, because people I love have painted that day for me in words and silences, in smiles and tears, so that it is etched in my memory as clearly as if I had been there.

Seated beside her bed, my sisters chatted softly, laughing at shared memories, as the dark inched toward morning. They held ice cubes for her to suck on, and at timed intervals they allowed a carefully measured teaspoonful of water to trickle down her throat. They rubbed cream into her hands. At one point she batted irritably at her mask and the Kat said, “Is it bothering you? Does your face need a rest?” She nodded, and the Kat lifted the oxygen mask and said, “Come on – exercise your face!” She grinned broadly, then pursed and pouted her lips, wrinkled her nose, blinked her bright eyes. Later that morning the Kat pulled the mask away again and had her perform her new face dance tricks for the rest of the family.

Every four hours nurses came to massage her and turn her so that she wouldn’t develop bed sores. They changed her diaper, put ointment in her dry mouth, checked her blood pressure. She smiled with relief and gratitude.

Twiglet, the sister of my heart, arrived. “Hey, special lady,” she greeted her, “What’s this nonsense now?” She kissed her, and Marmeee beamed at her with love.

The doctor came to check on her before the procedure to suction her lungs. His shoulders sagged and his face was sad as he told them she was too weak – they couldn’t do it after all. Gently he touched her swollen hands, and told them it was time to take out the drip. Her body could no longer process fluid – it was just making her uncomfortable.

Twiglet sent the Kat and the Egg home to rest. She picked up Marmeee’s Bible and read to her. She prayed for her, and sang Amazing Grace, and was quiet while she slept.

Loving hands (2)The Girl Child arrived with the Olde Buzzard later that morning. He took her hands, kissed her, said, “You’re so beautiful, my darling. I love you so much.” Then he sat as close to her as he could, refusing the comfortable chair because he couldn’t hold her hand unless he was in the hard upright chair.

Other family members came, and she captured each in turn with her bright, clear gaze, sending love like an arrow straight from her eyes to their hearts. Embraced by a room filled by her own most dear people, she basked in their conversation, laughter, teasing. She didn’t need to speak. She had forgiven all hurts, shared all she knew, told each one she loved them. She had left no business undone.

As the day drew to a close people began to leave. They kissed her goodbye, told her they loved her, promised to return. The Olde Buzzard was shuddering with cold and exhaustion after a too-long day. Gently the Girl Child coaxed him from his seat. “Come on, Granddad – Granny needs to rest. We’ll come back tomorrow.” The Kat took him home to her little Kat-House, and got him fed, washed and settled into bed. The only company left with Marmeee were my sister-in-law Sol and her children. They chatted quietly while Marmeee dozed, and sang Christmas carols to her when she woke, “Because,” said Sol, “she likes songs about Jesus, but I don’t really know any hymns.”

After a few hours, Sol had to leave. The Egg and the Kat were on their way back to take the late night watch, and she was alone for just a little while. When my sisters were just a short distance away, a nurse called to tell them to hurry. They said her blood pressure was falling fast. The Egg telephoned Twiglet, who said, “I think it’s time to call the family. Tell them to come quickly.” The Egg sent out a series of urgent messages on WhatsApp, while the Kat slapped her foot down onto her accelerator. They flew red lights and whipped around corners and slammed into a parking space, and they ran up to the ward.

There was really no time for anyone else to come. As they watched, she fell more and more deeply asleep. Her breathing, labored when they arrived, slowed to a whisper, to silence. The pulse in her neck flickered, stopped.

It had been a beautiful day, a beautiful life, but she was tired. She had said her goodbyes. It was time to go home.

Marmeee at Sol Duc Falls, Olympic Peninsula

Running ahead of the storm

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When I came home in mid-February, I was exhausted but optimistic. Marmeee was okay, for a couple years at least, probably. The Old Buzzard was losing his marbles but at a rate of only two or three a week, and his Alzheimer’s medication had transformed him into a happier, pleasanter person than he’d been in years. It was good to be back in Washington, and not too painful to be gone from my people in South Africa.

It didn’t matter that we were seven weeks into the year. I named 2016 My Year Of Reclamation, convinced that 10-and-a-bit months was all I needed to finally, at last, once and for all, turn my life around. This was the year I would have a productive vegetable garden, get serious about training Argos the Madcap Malinois, lose weight, start riding again, get our finances under control, and clean my house from top to bottom and end to end. I had a great idea for a series of fun, lightweight (but, of course, also thought-provoking) novels and I was going to start writing every day, and make money from it. And blogging. I promised myself I’d start blogging regularly every week about my fascinating life and amazing insights – you know.

collapsing like a house of cards

House of cards. (Source)

Yeah. That was the plan. I even signed up for Evernote and started a whole new super-efficient system of to do lists.

Plans are like card houses. You build them ever so carefully, handling each card with the most delicate touch as you add it to the structure. And then someone opens a window and a draft blows in and all your cards go flying.

So here it’s the end of July, and I’m looking back at the year to date and shaking my head and wondering what the fuck happened. I have been in such a horrible funk! I’ve been gobbling my way through books, most of them lightweight, easy reading or stuff I’ve read before – because even the most two-dimensional borrowed life has been more appealing than the one I’m living. I’ve been eating way too much crap, and suffering the usual consequences. All I’ve wanted to do is sleep, and when I do I wake up tired.

Depression? Well yes, but I’ve had reasons to feel sorry for myself, even without tripping over the Trump of Doom or Shillary every damn time I log onto my computer. (Seriously, America? I cannot believe that’s the best we can do!)

First, in February I accidentally overstayed my US passport’s welcome in South Africa by a whole 22 hours, and was declared an Undesirable Person and forbidden to return in under 12 months.

So then I tried to renew my South African passport, and learned that I had accidentally forfeited my South African citizenship by becoming an American citizen. I’m still trying to figure out why this was devastating, apart from the practical difficulty it caused. As someone who fears and distrusts the patriotic impulse, I should simply shrug it off with a casual “Whateverrr” … but in fact I feel robbed, and also homeless, and I’m sorry but the Land of the Free just can’t get my heart soaring the way it does under an African sky.

Then my precious Marmeee went into a downward spiral. Just before I left South Africa the oncologist told her she probably had a couple years to live … but apparently without me there to keep reminding her of this and force-feeding her chocolate milkshakes, she just … got tired, I guess. And then she died. And because of the bloody bullshit with my passport, I couldn’t be there to hold her hand. I know this was a “God thing” – I’ll explain why in another post (probably) – but it still aches.

I did manage to get through the border in time to help with her memorial and to figure out What To Do With Increasingly Dotty Dad, but while there I got sick with a deathwish-inducing flu that I didn’t shake for nearly a month. It made the 25 hour trip back a lot of fun.

Before I left we got the Old Buzzard into a home – a pleasant, homey sort of place – but instead of continuing to dole out his marbles one or two at a time he started throwing them away by the fistful. In a matter of months he went from affectionate, forgetful and occasionally grumpy, to aggressively uncooperative, to unwilling to walk and unable to speak coherently. He died a couple weeks ago. I’m not going back for the memorial, which is this coming Saturday … there’s no point, really. Today I have to write a tribute to go into the order of service, and I have no idea what to say.

I haven’t been able to grieve either of them. And mixed up in all that unexpressed grief is another deep sadness over the loss of my brother. He’s still walking around, breathing, saying things to people … but somewhere in the middle of everything else that’s been going on I learned that he hated me, has hated me for more than 30 years, has badmouthed me to people I care about – and they believed him. His claims about the way I treated him, his perceptions of who I am, have been woven into the fabric of our family dynamic – and until a few months ago I had no idea of it because the one person he never spoke to about it was me. I learned that the man I thought he was didn’t exist, the relationship I thought we had was a figment of my imagination. He has morphed from the sibling I loved most deeply and missed most painfully (even while he made my eyes roll) into The Stranger. Even if the latest nastiness “blows over”, the kind of confidence borne within mutual affection is gone. Trust is broken, and the loss feels like a death.

Sailboat in front of a tsunami

Fleeing the tsunami. (Source)

So grieving has become complicated, and I’m trying to stay ahead of it for now. Every now and then I feel tears starting to well up, but … I’m so busy, you know? If I could run away for a few days, just me and my dog, maybe then … but right now my to do list is simply too long. I don’t have the time – I don’t have the capacity – for a tsunami.

Oh – and I nearly forgot: earlier this month the Hubbit broke his arm. He tripped over his own feet, but of course he blamed my dog. Then he insisted he didn’t need xrays, didn’t need to see a doctor – so of course he ended up needing surgery. And bad tempered? Let me tell you, my guy is a generous fellow. When he’s in pain, he shares it. We all get some. So even though I got to say “I TOLD YOU SO” on several satisfying occasions, life would have been better if he’d managed to stay vertical.

Oy … this post has turned into quite the pity party. I’m sorry about that. I’ve been gone for a while, and I thought some sort of explanation was in order.

Also, here’s the thing – and I need to write this down so that I can come back as often as necessary and read it: I know that tsunami is coming. I know I can’t escape it. But I am reclaiming my faith in God – not that I lost it, but I’ve been angry, confused and resistant. I lost myself for a while. That book series I mentioned? It still looks promising, and every day I see my heroine more clearly. I like her a lot and hope you will too, when I set her loose upon the world. And the weeds didn’t completely win in my veggie garden this year. I’ve found tomatoes, cabbage, cauliflower and onions lurking out there.

As for right now this minute … I’m here, right? I’m blogging, aka writing. I’m not sure why that matters, but it does. It gives me hope.

In other words, to hell with the funk – this is still My Year of Reclamation.

So … how’s your summer going?

 

Dislocation

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I got a WhatsApp message 18 days ago. This is what it said:

Hi. Day of tests (eg CAT scan) and stuff happening, have some rather rough news. Luckily Dad was here to hear it direct from the doctor. The fact is, subject to confirmation from Oncologists, I have cancer, and don’t have a whole lot of time. Could be as little as 6 weeks, could be 6 months, he couldn’t say without opinion of oncologist.

The message was from my mother.

So now I am sitting on my sister’s stoep in Johannesburg at 3.30AM, 10,164 miles (that’s 16,358 km) from home. At home right now the time is 5.30PM, which means it’s been dark for more than an hour. The temperature is 29 degrees Fahrenheit (that’s -1.7 Celsius) and it’s raining, but at least it’s not windy. The Hubbit has had to put heaters in the water troughs to prevent them from icing over, and he’s hung an infrared light next to the water supply in the chicken house. I am wearing a short-sleeved nightshirt and a light shawl, and on my feet I have thick non-slip socks that Himself brought back from some or other hospital visit; my legs and arms are bare and I’m enjoying the cool pre-dawn air. It’s pitch dark and not windy here too.

I have been trying to write this post for more than two weeks and I still have no idea how to proceed. How does one describe such profound dislocation? Does the language to do so even exist?

Fifty-eight years ago I slept and danced in the center of her body, just below her heart. A few months later, I rested on her breast, soothed by her heartbeat. As the years passed I shifted my orbit further and further out. I acquired my own satellite, I allowed my heart to take me to another country, separated from her by the full thickness of this planet. But always, any time I thought of it, I could hear the beat of her heart, and it beat for me … for me … for me.

I am afraid. How will I find my way in the terrible silence when her heart stops beating? How will I hold my orbit when she is no longer at the center of it?

Those questions are way too big. I cannot comprehend their answers. Instead, I focus on to do lists. I created one before I left home and completed most of what was on it – hay bought and stacked, a foster dog rehomed, filing and budget up-to-date, house cleaned, appointments canceled, Plans A, B and C in place to ensure that my crazy puppy doesn’t send Himself clear over the edge. I did all that I could to ensure the Hubbit’s well-being, even as I prepared to leave him to cope with a supremely shitty challenge on his own. And now I’m working off a new to-do list, featuring items like “Call Hospice” and “Deal with medical aid re oxygen”, and also “Birthday party for Dad”.

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Focus on happy memories … The Fogies, with various dogs and Marmeee’s snow maiden – winter time at Siyabonga in 2007.

I focus on living in the now. Now she is here, and most days we work together on the final edit of her book. We have conversations about life and death and stuff that we remember and God and that peculiar woman who just walked past their unit at the retirement complex. We pray together. We go out for coffee. We are relearning how to chuckle at the small things.

I am also using this time out from the everyday to recalibrate my own life. I’m spending time with the Girl Child, reconnecting with my siblings and best friend and others that I love. I’m paying attention to my health – yesterday my sister and I started the ketogenic diet together, and I have aspirations of swimming daily in the pool at her complex just as soon as I kick the sinus infection that I managed to pick up on my way here.

Sometimes I am troubled by my calm. I feel guilty because it seems I’m not sad enough. I’m finding it too easy to make lists, to diet, to remember how to drive on the left side of the road. I get irritated by other drivers and angry with my Dad for not behaving the way I want, and I am pleased that the exchange rate is working out well for me, and I read and watch TV and go to restaurants and argue about politics.

It’s only now and then that grief overwhelms me, and I find myself sitting in parking lots or pulled over to the side of the road, with snot running down my face as I wail and bite my fist and pull my hair. A few days ago, after an agonizing conversation with my Dad, I came home to my sister’s condo and I couldn’t go inside because no one else was home. So I hammered on her next door neighbor’s door and, when he opened it, begged the poor startled man for a hug – which he gave along with tea and lemon cream biscuits and a quiet place to sit and pull myself together.

But one cannot live in that place, and I’m learning that that’s okay. I know a dark day is coming. I know that none of my puny lists and preparations will make the least difference in the horrible breathless silence of that day. But right now, as I sit here on my sister’s stoep and coming to the end of my first blog post in more than a month, I am embraced by the dawn. I hear songbirds and hadedas, and the traffic of people going about their lives in the city. In a few hours, my precious Marmeee and I will work together on her book, and the oxygen delivery guy is coming, and a friend of hers who is a nurse. Maybe I’ll take the Fogies out for coffee and cake after lunch. This evening I’m roasting a chicken and my friend is coming for dinner.

Today is a gift, and I will rejoice and be glad in it. Tomorrow’s sorrow can wait its turn.

 

The discipline of trust

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Two weeks ago I visited my friend for the last time.

Yesterday at the church her son gave me the woven shawl she would use when she rested on the couch in her living room. I used to love how soft it felt when I sat at the end of the couch with the shawl over my lap while I massaged her poor, swollen feet, back when her liver began to fail. Now she doesn’t need it any more, and I can wrap it around myself like a hug any time I want to.

I asked for something to remember her by. When he gave me this, my heart broke. Then I came home and wrapped it around me, and was comforted.

I asked for something to remember her by. When he gave me this, my heart broke. Then I came home and wrapped it around me, and was comforted.

We didn’t get to talk the last time I visited her. She was uncomfortable but she couldn’t speak above a whisper, just a few slurred words at a time, so I didn’t know what to do for her. I retreated to the big easy chair she kept in her bedroom and let the Hospice aide tend to her. The aide was kind and competent, but my friend wanted pain medication and the aide wouldn’t (couldn’t?) give it to her.

“You have to wait until 4.30,” she said, again and again, in response to my friend’s broken, insistent whispers. (It was then two o’clock.) The aide went away and called Hospice then came back and said it again. While she was out of the room I sat beside my friend, stroking her hand, bereft of words – because what are words for if not to advise, encourage or inform? I could do nothing but sit beside her and stare at the drawer of her bedside table, inside which she had 15 or 20 bottles of pills. She knew which ones she wanted but I did not, and even if I’d had the courage to give them to her I could not understand her.

In movies, drugs for dying patients are kept on the far side of the room, out of their reach. I have always thought that was wickedly cruel. If I were dying and in pain, I have thought, I would want to have my medications right next to me, and if I wished to take an extra one or two – and so speed the process – that should be my right.

My friend’s pills were right within her reach, but she was too weak to get them out of the drawer, too tired and confused to read the labels, and much too feeble to open the cap on the pill bottle. I did not know it was possible to be that weak.

I do not know how it is possible to be that strong. I understand now that even then, when her need was great, if she had been able to take an extra pill and so end her struggle she would not have done so. Years ago, long before I met her, she entrusted her life into God’s hands, and she left it there. Something I have learned about God is, when you hand Him your life, He doesn’t lift it out of reach. You can take it back any time you choose – and choosing not to can be an act of extraordinary discipline. My friend was the most disciplined person I have ever known.

At last she wearied of arguing with the aide. I could see she needed to sleep, and I had errands to run and nothing to offer her anyway. “I have to go,” I told her, “but I’ll pray for you first.” It was just a little prayer – there was nothing to ask for but rest, freedom from pain, and for her to go home, home, home – “Please,” I whispered, “Let her come home!”  And she sighed relief as the lines of tension in her face eased, and it seemed to me that she relaxed into her Father’s arms.

But it was a whole hard week before He finally took her home, and during that time she didn’t want visitors. It was painful to be shut out, reminded daily that I could do nothing for her. But thinking back now I’m grateful that memory is the last one I have of her. I’m thankful that in that little prayer I did after all have something, however fleeting, to give her.

We said goodbye to her yesterday, in a service she planned to the last detail just before Thanksgiving. The first hymn said pretty much everything important about who she was and how she lived, right up to her last breath.

More people came to the service than I expected. She was the kind of person one always pictured standing alone – not aloof or lonely, but serenely self-contained. I knew, of course, that she was active in volunteer work, and that she deeply loved her family and spent as much time as she could with them. But until a few weeks before she died, when I was with her it was always just the two of us, and during those times she was so completely present that it never occurred to me that anyone that calm could possess the time or energy to have so many other friendships that ran as deep. But my friend never wasted her energy or her time, and so she had precisely as much as she needed for what mattered to her.

It was beautiful but humbling, yesterday, to realize that she had also been completely present within the lives of many other people. As they spoke about her I learned things – ordinary facts about her and her history and thoughts she had shared in conversations with others – and I was amazed by the complex, rich beauty of her life and personality. I had thought I knew her well; I know she didn’t hold back in the conversations we shared – and yet there was so much more to know than I had ever imagined. In a way, she was like her shawl. I always thought it was purple, and it was only after I brought it home that I noticed all the other colors in the weave.

And now it is the day after her memorial, and she really and truly is gone from my life, and it is time to move on. Except…

Except I find myself still wanting to honor her. Knowing her and losing her has changed me, and I find myself wanting to live that change, to give it breath. A month ago, watching her quietly yield up the elements of her life, I thought she was showing me how to die, but I see now that she has taught me far more important things about how to live.